Priest Guilty in Child Molest Case
Mistrial Declared on 4 Other Counts
By Linda Deutsch
Associated Press, carried in Monterey County Herald
February 23, 2006
LOS ANGELES - Retired Roman Catholic priest and admitted molester Michael Wempe was found guilty Wednesday of one count of child molestation after an emotionally wrenching trial that saw grown men weeping about their childhood abuse.
But the case involved only one victim, Jayson B., who claimed he was 11 when the abuse started. Jurors were unable to reach verdicts on four counts, so a mistrial was declared on those.
Wempe, 66, who was immediately taken into custody, agreed to waive sentencing until the district attorney can decide whether to seek a retrial on the undecided counts.
He faces a sentence of 16 months to three years on the single count. He has already served a year in prison, so that time would be deducted. One of his attorneys said he was diabetic and had a heart condition, so likely would serve his time in a medical unit.
The jury's inability to agree on all charges was telegraphed early in deliberations in a series of questions seeking more information and suggesting skepticism about the testimony of Jayson B.
A key sticking point was the now 26-year-old man's claim that he was molested by the priest in a purple Thunderbird, a car the defense showed the priest did not drive until 1995. Most charges in the case alleged acts earlier than that. The one guilty verdict involved an act of oral copulation in the priest's car near the victim's home.
"I hope this brings some closure to the people involved," said Donald Steier, one of Wempe's attorneys.
Wempe's lawyers acknowledged that the priest molested 13 boys in the 1970s and 1980s, but said he went into church-ordered treatment and returned a changed man, never molesting after that.
Wempe was charged with 42 counts of child molestation in 2003, and even spent a year in jail awaiting trial. However, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the statute of limitations on the crimes and his case was dismissed. But it was those crimes that took up the bulk of this trial. The testimony of older victims was powerful.
Some cried as they recounted abuse that damaged them for life, leading to drug addiction, alcoholism and dropping out of school.
Wempe, seated across the courtroom, cried with them.
"This guy is so sick," snapped one victim. Asked how he knew the priest, the 39-year-old man replied, "From a nightmare."
Wempe's lawyer, Leonard Levine, said Jayson B. fabricated his story to gain retribution against the priest for molestation of his older brothers.
"The prosecution's case was based on passion, prejudice and emotion for what happened 20 to 30 years ago," Levine said.
Deputy District Attorney Todd Hicks, who described Wempe as a "hip" priest who wore his hair long, rode a motorcycle and gave such dynamic sermons that young people and their parents were drawn to him, said he merely tried to show an ongoing pattern of behavior by the priest.
He said he was pleased with the verdict and Jayson B. was elated.
As for the importance of the case, Hicks said, "It sends a message to the archdiocese regarding this defendant. They certainly mishandled this defendant."
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles released a statement saying: "Father Michael Wempe's conviction cannot restore the trust and innocence stolen from his victims, but hopefully this verdict may provide them some measure of justice and comfort."
Jayson B. and his older brother were in the front row of the courtroom but showed no reaction.
The trial played out over four weeks against the backdrop of an ongoing scandal in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Joelle Casteix, southwestern regional director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said members hope "Wempe will now search his conscience and disclose to the police, prosecutors and the public what he knows about Cardinal Roger Mahony and church officials' cover-ups of sex crimes in the church."
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